A new José Stevens Article
Cheap Lessons in Ecuador
In late January 2007 I traveled to Ecuador to give a keynote address and provide private sessions to a woman’s leadership conference in the capital city of Quito.
Coincidentally my daughter Anna traveled to Quito at the same time to do preliminary research on a Canadian film project documenting the retracing of the Inca trail from Ecuador to Argentina.
The original plan was for Anna and I to go about a week early and visit a 96 year old shaman in the Amazon jungle of Ecuador. Anna had visited with him late in 2006 as part of research having to do with yet a different film project and she wanted to introduce me to him and perhaps do a ceremony with him. As it turned out we did not visit with him for a number of reasons including travel complications and the general difficulty of the times. In other words the timing was not exactly right and I was not in the space to take on this kind of challenge on the trip.Nevertheless we were slated to leave a week early as planned so we would have a week in Ecuador together before our respective programs began. For some reason I had a certain trepidation about going on this trip and couldn’t shake the feeling of anxiety that it brought up in me. We were slated to leave on a 6 AM flight out of Albuquerque and thus had to awaken at 3 AM to make the flight. I set two alarms and Anna who was sleeping over at our house set her alarm for our early rising. At 4:30 AM I awoke and it slowly dawned on me that none of our alarms had gone off and it was too late to catch our flight. Nevertheless I awoke Anna to her own horror and we drove to the airport anyway in the slight chance that we could still make the flight. We got to a fairly empty airport with 30 minutes to spare but the clerk at American would simply not support our getting on even though I am a platinum member and have often had them help me in emergencies before. We missed our flight and had to leave the next morning paying $100 apiece for the rebooking. This is not the way I like to begin an international trip. Our flight the next day was uneventful and we arrived in Quito, the capitol of Ecuador, the next evening with the vague plan that we would catch a bus for Banos, a beautiful town in the center of Ecuador at the base of an active volcano. The bus whisked us south in driving rain so that we were unable to see most of the spectacular volcanoes along the route through central Ecuador.
Ecuador is a small country about the size of Colorado yet it has the most dense population for its size among all the South American Countries. Most of its population is concentrated in the several big cities that crouch at the base of active volcanic systems. In fact most of Ecuador’s volcanoes are less than 6000 years old, extraordinarily young by geological standards. Most Ecuadorians accept that fact that one day any one of a number of volcanoes could experience a major eruption that could easily wipe out the entire country. In fact this happened approximately 3500 hundred years ago sending over one million of its inhabitants fleeing to the North where they became the Olmecs of old Mexico. Because of its volcanic ash Ecuador is extraordinarily fertile and has more variety of orchids than any other country on earth. Next to Columbia it supplies more cut flowers to the USA than any other country.
Arriving in Banos we checked into a quaint hotel and wandered about the town. Banos is nestled in a spectacular river canyon at the base of an extremely active volcano still smoking after a major eruption six years ago threatened the entire town with extinction. The town was evacuated for months after its main road was taken out by fresh lava flows. Today it is resuming its normal activities as a tourist town with famous hot springs, mountain biking, horseback riding, river rafting, bungee jumping and a host of active outdoor adventures.
Here Anna and I figured we would spend a few days relaxing and seeing the sights. Of course our first stop was the luxuriant hot mineral baths where one alternatively soaks in 104 degree water and a 40 degree plunge. The goal is to spend five minutes in each for three times apiece. I found it to be powerfully cleansing and invigorating but challenging to do. We wandered the town, saw condors at the wildlife center, ate good food, and slept deeply. The next day upon reading our guide book we discovered that there was a world famous spectacular train trip that left only twice a week from Riobamba, a nearby town. One could ride on the roof of an old steam train down a precipice with outstanding views of the Andes. The guide book said that tickets would go on sale on Wednesdays at 3 PM for the Thursday journey. It was now Wednesday at 11 AM so if we wanted to go we would have to pack and leave instantly. We made a quick decision to go and in a mad dash we packed and jumped in a cab for the short ride to the bus station. While packing my things I had to make a quick decision about the cash I was carrying with me. Now normally I divide my money into a number of smaller amounts which I stash in various places just in case I might be robbed. This has worked well for me over more than twenty trips to South America and elsewhere. Inexplicably however I had divided it into only three stashes with the bulk of it in an envelope that I had locked in my wheeled duffle. Realizing that the bag would be out of my hands on the bus I quickly transferred it to my backpack and jumped into the cab. The cab driver jokingly but half seriously said he could drive us to Riobamba for only $30 but we good naturedly said it was much cheaper to take the bus, $2 apiece. At the bus station we bought our tickets for Riobamba and were directed to a bus that would leave in about fifteen minutes. I got on the bus and Anna went to find some food for both of us. An Ecuadorian man came aboard taking tickets from the passengers. When he came to me he indicated that I could not have my backpack on my lap and that I had to put it in the compartment overhead. I thought this was a little strange because it had been no problem on the other bus but I complied and he took my ticket. Then Anna came aboard and he made her put her bag up there too. We had a hard time fitting them in that narrow space and he helped to jam them in. He then vanished off the bus. In a few minutes the bus pulled out and promptly backed into another bus that was parked temporarily behind it causing a major jolt and breaking the tail light of the bus while denting the other bus. Police arrived and there was major shouting and chaos. We began to realize that the bus was going to be delayed a long time and that we were not going to get to Riobamba on time. So we made a quick decision to leave the bus, take our bags from underneath and grab a cab for $30 afterall to make it on time to buy our train tickets. Upon departing Banos in the cab Anna remarked that her backpack was unzipped and that her light gore tex jacket seemed to be missing. I checked my bag and all the zippers were closed but I opened it anyway and to my horror the envelope with the cash in it was open and empty. More than $700 of crisp green bills were gone.
Now if you have ever been rudely traumatized you know that there are a few brief moments of disbelief with the dawning awareness that something terrible has happened. Quickly the mind begins to race over the immediately preceding events to piece together how this possibly could have happened. Then there is a great anger that seems to come like a wave with the desire to smash or hurt something. There is panic, heart racing, helplessness, dawning acceptance, victimization, feeling like an idiot, and a mish mash of utter distress. We were hurtling along a spectacular road way with our cab driver trying to make pleasant conversation and both of us staring incomprehensively at the evidence of our loss. In those moments the whole world seems to turn dark no matter how bright the day and consciousness seems to narrow down to a myopic awareness of what has been lost.
Knowing that we were trying to make it to Riobamba by 3 PM the cab driver was accommodating us by taking various spectacular detours and hurtling past slow lumbering buses and trucks. Thoroughly ungrounded and stressed I could do nothing but obsess over how this had happened and think darkly about the hidden meaning of this, perhaps bad astrology, perhaps karma in this country, perhaps worse lying ahead, maybe I never should have come etc. As Anna and I mulled over the events we realized that we had been hit by a team of thieves. Obviously the ticket taker was in cahoots with the bus driver. Upon letting the bus driver know of a big haul the driver had been sufficiently ungrounded that he backed into an obvious bus behind him. He was probably freaking out at the arrival of the police and so many people but then we vanished off his bus solving his problem.
So, did I owe these guys some karmic debt I had come to Ecuador to repay or had they just created fresh karma with me? I just wasn’t calm enough inside to figure that out. Every time I thought of the ticket taker I found myself enraged and finding my imaginary hands encircling his throat ready to squeeze the life out of him. Then I would catch myself and think, “That is not the way Jose, let it go. These folks are poor and we are rich by their standards. I can regroup. There is more where that came from. Perhaps he has a sick mother that needs help or there are things that I do not know about this affair. Just shrug it off.” All very reasonable of course and wise but of course I could not just shrug it off. I would invariably start going over the same set of thoughts and end up with the exact same conclusion over and over
Suddenly we were in Riobamba and heading for the train station. Well at least we were off to another good adventure here I thought. The train ride will make it all better. I looked at my watch. Exactly 3 PM it read but already there was a line of tourists waiting outside the ticket office. There are only about twenty people I thought as I got in line. There ought to be plenty of tickets to spare as more tourist lined up behind me. As I stood in line there was a man who came out and began talking loudly to the crowd in line. The regular train had been canceled due to some landslides. They were still going to run a small train but could take only a small number of people. Ahead of me in line were a couple of tour guides who bought up the vast majority of the tickets. Still I waited in line fatefully hoping there would be just enough tickets for Anna and me. Slowly I made my way up to the ticket office and the woman in front of me bought the last ticket. “So sorry senor. We are out of tickets. Next train in several days.” I turned to Anna in strange disbelief. We just laughed at the situation. ”Oh well its one of those days we should probably have not gotten out of bed. What do we do now?” At this point I was connecting the dots. Foreboding about Ecuador. Missed plane in Albuquerque. Robbed of money in Banos. Sold out tickets to train after all that effort and work to get here.
Now at this point as you can probably see the temptation to feel victimized was at its all time high. Fortunately at this point all I could think of was how I was going to find a toilet so I could pee. The nice station master directed me to one, smilingly opened it with his key, and I was able to find relief. Well some things were still working perfectly well. I felt strangely calm, like, this too shall pass. At the same time I felt weirdly disconnected from my normally good intuition about where to go and what to do. I have to say I was a little lost and distracted. Not a good thing when traveling in a somewhat dangerous foreign country.
Now all this time I was marveling about how Anna was handling this set of unnerving events. She was calm and accepting and seemed not very stressed at all. Even though she too had lost her favorite and only goretex rain jacket she was philosophical about everything. “Well dad, I guess we have to roll with this. Maybe we were not meant to be on that train. Maybe there is something to learn here.” I looked at her incredulously. “Hey, those are the things I’m supposed to say. Instead my daughter is reminding me how it is. Well that is fabulous. She is the best possible traveling companion I could have in this moment. She manages to keep her head when those all around are losing theirs. We reconnoiter. Lets just go back to Banos and hang out. Nothing else seems to be working and it is nice there. Back in a cab to the bus station, a mob of people, a crowded bus just leaving for Banos and suddenly we are on it with peasant Ecuadorians crowded all around us and I have a freeing thought. I am not worrying about being ripped off because I have already been ripped off and there is nothing they can take. Ah! So I enjoy the ride back to Banos and I am relaxing and the thoughts of strangling the ticket taker are less now. On the drive back we pass Chimborazo, a hugely powerful Apu (Sacred mountain spirit), the highest volcano in Ecuador, and some say the highest mountain in the world. At well over twenty thousand feet and being on the equator, the peak of Chimborazo is considerably farther from the center of the Earth than Mount Everest. So many people in Ecuador consider it to be the most powerful and highest mountain in the world. There it stood in clear sunlight with its snow clad peak soaring into the Equatorial sky. What a beautiful sight. So I silently greeted this major Apu and asked it to help me overcome my distress. I said I wanted it to help me become peaceful and to help me learn to be in the moment more. I also asked for more protection while traveling in these parts. Perhaps I had neglected thus far to enlist the local powers to protect me and that was an error that I paid for.
Well no matter. There is always something to learn. On the way back to Banos I had many enlightening thoughts. I practiced being in the moment and letting go of the earlier distress. Money is always replaceable. Powerful lessons are priceless as the mastercard commercial alludes to. Perhaps now the hard lessons were over and from now on things would lighten up. I did my best to forgive the ticket taker and tried to imagine blessings coming to him. Perhaps he would have an awakening some day and would no longer feel he had to steal money from others.
Although it was hard going back to the bus station, the scene of the crime, I was actually relieved to be back in Banos. The next few days were actually relaxing and beautiful. We went back to the baths, had massages, and ate good food. We rented mountain bikes and coasted down into the jungle on a spectacular winding road that dropped down into orchid filled tropical forests from the Andes. We hiked to powerful waterfalls, soaked up their spray, and took a scary tram over a deep canyon to see another waterfall. We smoked our mapachos in a gorgeous rainforest cascade and communed with the wonderful spirits there. Healing was available all around us carrying off the pain and trauma of robbery, pulling away the web of distress and loss of harmony. We climbed to the foot of another smoking volcano and basked in the sun of the bright Andean air. All became well. Well except for one thing. I don’t get sick anymore much. At least I hadn’t for the last three years other than gastrointestinal distress while traveling in the jungle. However I was chagrined at discovering I was developing a sore throat and I still had the conference to attend. I focused on my throat and immediately thought of my earlier thoughts of strangling the ticket taker. Then I clearly saw myself in a past life being hung for robbery. Well, well, well. The chickens do come home to roost. So this was my punishment to myself for having such thoughts.
Eventually it was time to go back to Quito and by this time I had developed quite a throat infection that I did not know how to clear other than to take some over the counter antibiotics so I would not lose my voice. Feeling under the weather I checked into the Swiss hotel, an upscale hotel with liveried doormen in top hats and coats, the place of the conference. Here 150 successful women, all CEO’s of their companies, White House fellows, and women in government positions were having their annual meeting to network and learn about a new country. I was the only man, an under the weather one at that. Over the next four days I kept twenty six hour long appointments with some of the most interesting and accomplished women on the planet. While in session I managed to stay in essence and thus kept my frequency high enough to ride above the flu like symptoms hovering at every step. I was so buzzed that I managed to sleep only about four hours a night. I have no idea how I kept such a schedule and managed to stay well enough to do a good job. Not only that but I more than made up for what I had lost in the theft.
I was very well received and welcomed by this group of most interesting people. I gave my talk on “What is Shamanism and its implications for business” and even managed to sing them all an icaro to illustrate the essence of the power of shamanism. On the final night they threw a big party with a wild dance in a bullring and dragged me into it. Here were women in their fifties, sixties, and even a few in their seventies dancing with fun filled abandon and enjoyment. They included conservatives and liberals alike and it did not seem to matter at all. I shall never forget dancing with so many wonderful people and having so much fun. What became more clear than ever to me is that it is definitely women who through their leadership and special qualities of cooperation will redirect this planet away from the catastrophic brink and toward a possible sustainable tomorrow and I don’t mind at all helping them do just that. The flu never really caught me. The Apu’s helped me and I was able to carry out a large number of agreements on the back of some pretty testy lessons earlier on.
For such lessons and experience, the price, a small robbery. What a bargain! Cheap lessons for sure.
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